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About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Danzón No. 7 (2001)
Arturo Márquez (b. 1950)
Arturo Márquez was born in 1950 in Alamos in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, where his father was a mariachi violinist. Arturo, Sr. introduced his son to music and when the family moved to Los Angeles in 1962, young Arturo was ready to begin studying violin and immersing himself in a variety of musical styles — “I spent my adolescence,” he recalled, “listening to [Mexican singer] Javier Solis, sounds of mariachi, the Beatles, Doors, Carlos Santana and Chopin.” By the time the family returned to Sonora when he was seventeen, he had started to compose and was ready to become director of the municipal band in Navojoa the following year. Márquez went to Mexico City in 1970 to begin his professional studies at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, where he majored in piano and composition. From 1976 to 1979, he studied at the Institute of Fine Arts of Mexico with Joaquín Gutiérrez Heras, Hector Quintanar and Federico Ibarra, and a French government grant in 1980 enabled him to study in Paris with Jacques Castérède for two years; he then did his academic graduate work on a Fulbright scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts with Morton Subotnick, Stephen Mosko, Mel Powell and James Newton. Arturo Márquez, today one of Mexico’s most respected musicians, has taught at the National University of Mexico, held a residency at the National Center of Research, Documentation and Information of Mexican Music, fulfilled commissions from the Organization of American States, Universidad Metropolitana de México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Festival del Caribe, Festival de la Ciudad de México, 1992 Seville World’s Fair and Rockefeller Foundation, and received, among many distinctions, Mexico’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences, the Austrian Embassy’s Medalla Mozart, and the Gold Medal of Fine Arts of Mexico, the first musician so honored with the country’s highest award for artists.
Márquez has composed nine works for varied instrumentation titled Danzón. In 1942, after a good-will visit to Cuba, Aaron Copland wrote his Danzón Cubano, and gave the following description of the form: “The popular Cuban dance style known as danzón has a very special character. It is a stately dance, quite different from the rhumba, conga and tango, and one that fulfills a function rather similar to that of the waltz in our own music, providing contrast to some of the more animated dances. The danzón is not the familiar hectic, flashy and rhythmically complicated type of Cuban dance. It is more elegant and curt and is very precise, as dance music goes. The dance itself seemed especially amusing to me because it has a touch of unconscious grotesquerie, as if it were an impression of ‘high-life’ as seen through the eyes of the populace — elegance perceived by the inelegant.” Of his colorful and melodic Danzón No. 7 (2001), commissioned by the Pan American Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. and premiered by that ensemble on June 1, 2002 under the direction of Sergio Alessandro Bušlje, Márquez noted, “I discovered that the apparent lightness of the danzón hides a music full of sensuality and rigor, music of nostalgia and joy that our old folks live with, a world that we can still grasp in the dance music of Veracruz and the dance halls of Mexico City. Danzón No. 7 is a tribute to the world that nurtured it. It tries to get as close as possible to the dance, to its nostalgic melodies and its monotonous rhythms, and is a personal way of expressing my admiration and feelings towards real Mexican popular music.”
Suite from Háry János (1925)
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Throughout his life, Kodály was enthralled with the folk music of his native Hungary. While still in his twenties, he joined Béla Bartók, and the two set out across the countryside to capture the musical culture of the peasants armed only with a pad of manuscript paper and a primitive phonograph recorder. They collected more than 3,500 melodies, and became the most notable scholars in the field. Kodály’s study of Eastern European folksong, published in 1937, is still the standard reference on the subject. As an educator, Kodály encouraged his composition students to explore folk culture, both to understand better the true nature of their land and to serve as the stylistic basis of their works. He devised a method of education founded on song and dance models that introduced native music and history to young children. In his own works, he strove to recreate the spirit of folk music that would open the riches of their heritage to his fellow Hungarians. His opera Háry János grew from this nationalistic philosophy.
Háry was a factual being who lived in Hungary early in the 19th century. His chief distinction was being a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and the opera is based on the fantastic stories Háry wove around his experiences. “He is a peasant, a veteran soldier,” wrote Kodály in the preface to the opera, “who day after day sits in the tavern, spinning yarns about his heroic exploits and, being a peasant, the stories produced by his fantastic imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naïveté, of comic humor and pathos. Yet he is by no means just a Hungarian Munchausen. Though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a national visionary and poet. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world.” The episodes of the opera and the movements of the Suite are based on Háry’s extravagant stories.
In the opera, Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise, falls in love with Háry, and takes him with her to Vienna. Napoleon learns of the liaison and declares war on Vienna. Háry, by his own unimpeachable word, defeats the French unaided. He returns to a hero’s welcome at the imperial court in Vienna, where he rejects the further advances of Marie Louise in favor of the simple love of his childhood sweetheart.
For the American premiere of the Suite, Kodály supplied the following notes:
“According to a Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze of one of the hearers, it is regarded as confirmation of the truth of the assertion. The Háry János Suite begins with a sneeze of this kind.
“No. II. The scene is laid in the imperial palace in Vienna, where the ingenious Hungarian peasant is amazed and enraptured by the famous Musical Clock with its little soldier figures in their brave uniforms appearing and disappearing at every rotation of the marvelous machinery.
“No. III. Háry and his sweetheart are longing for their village home and its quiet evenings, musical with love songs (an ancient Hungarian melody is used).
“No. IV. Háry, as general in command of his hussars, confronts the French army. He brandishes his sword, and lo! the French begin to fall before him like tin soldiers! First, two at a time, then four — eight — ten, and so on. Finally there are no more soldiers left, and Napoleon is forced to engage in person the invincible Háry. Háry’s fantasy pictures a Napoleon made in the image of his own burly peasant imagination — an immensely tall and formidable Napoleon who, shaking in every limb, kneels before his conqueror and pleads for mercy. The ironical French Victory March is transformed into a dirge.
“No. V is an intermezzo in folk dance style.
“No. VI. An ironical march of triumph, in which Háry pictures the entrance of the emperor and the imperial court at Vienna; but it is not the Austrian reality — only a Hungarian peasant’s way of imagining the rich happiness of the celebrated Wiener Burg.”
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
When he was old and as mellow as he would ever get, Rachmaninoff wrote these words about his early years: “Although I had to fight for recognition, as most younger men must, although I have experienced all the troubles and sorrow which precede success, and although I know how important it is for an artist to be spared such troubles, I realize, when I look back on my early life, that it was enjoyable, in spite of all its vexations and bitterness.” The greatest “bitterness” of Rachmaninoff’s career was brought about by his Symphony No. 1, a work that had such a disastrous premiere he forbade any other performances of the piece while he was alive. The total failure of the Symphony at its premiere in 1897 was a traumatic disappointment to him, one that thrust him into such a mental depression that he suffered a complete nervous collapse.
Such a hyper-emotional attitude was not unusual at the turn of the 20th century for the Russian aristocracy of which Rachmaninoff was a member. Melancholia was virtually a way of upper-class life at the time, as the Russian critic and composer Leonid Sabaneiev described: “The famous Moscow restaurants, the no-less famous Gypsy choruses, the atmosphere of continuing dissipation in which perhaps there was no merriment at all, but on the contrary, the most genuine, bitter and impenetrable pessimism — this was the milieu. Music there was a terrible narcosis, a sort of intoxication and oblivion, a going-off into irrational places…. It was not form or harmoniousness or Apollonic vision that was demanded of music, but passion, feeling, languor, heartache. Such was Tchaikovsky’s music, and such also the music of Rachmaninoff developed into.” After the failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff was mired in exactly such an emotional abyss as Sabaneiev described, and he showed little inclination of ever climbing out. His family, alarmed at the prospect of the brilliant young musician wasting his prodigious talents, expended their own capabilities to help him, and then sought out professional psychiatric counsel.
An aunt of Rachmaninoff, Varvara Satina, had recently been successfully treated for an emotional disturbance by a certain Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a Moscow physician who was familiar with the latest psychiatric discoveries in France and Vienna, and it was arranged that Rachmaninoff should visit him. Years later, in his memoirs, the composer recalled the malady and the treatment: “[Following the performance of the First Symphony,] something within me snapped. All my self-confidence broke down. A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch sighing over my ruined life. My only occupation consisted in giving a few piano lessons to keep myself alive.” For more than a year, Rachmaninoff’s condition persisted. He began his daily visits to Dr. Dahl in January 1900. “My relatives had informed Dr. Dahl that he must by all means cure me of my apathetic condition and bring about such results that I would again be able to compose. Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was desired of me, and he was informed ‘a concerto for pianoforte,’ which I had given up in despair of ever writing. In consequence, I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula, as I lay half somnolent in an armchair in Dr. Dahl’s consulting room: ‘You will start to compose a concerto — You will work with the greatest of ease — The composition will be of excellent quality.’ Always it was the same, without interruption.” Almost like a movie script from the Hollywood where Rachmaninoff eventually settled, the good doctor’s unusual cure worked. “Although it may seem impossible to believe,” Rachmaninoff continued, “this treatment really helped me. I started to compose again at the beginning of the summer.” In gratitude, he dedicated the new Concerto in C minor to Dr. Dahl.
Rachmaninoff wrote the second and third movements of his rehabilitative Concerto in the summer and early autumn of 1900 in Italy, Novgorod and Moscow; this incomplete version was heard at a charity concert in Moscow on October 14th, with the composer at the keyboard and Alexander Siloti conducting. The opening movement was composed by the following spring, and the premiere of the finished work was given on October 14, 1901 with the same two principals and the orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. The C minor Concerto was the first orchestral work to carry the name of Rachmaninoff into the world’s concert halls. (His ubiquitous C-sharp minor Prelude of 1892 had been a piano-bench and recital favorite for a decade.) Other advances in Rachmaninoff’s life soon followed — many successful musical compositions, an appointment as the opera conductor of the Moscow Grand Theater, and a triumphant career as a concert pianist. There always remained buried away in his innermost thoughts, however, those ghosts of self-doubt and insecurity that Nicholas Dahl could never have totally exorcised from the dour composer’s psychological constitution.
The C minor Concerto begins with eight bell-tone chords from the solo piano that herald the surging main theme, which is announced by the strings. A climax is achieved before a sudden drop in intensity makes way for the arching second theme, initiated by the soloist. The development section, concerned largely with the first theme, is propelled by a martial rhythm that continues with undiminished energy into the recapitulation. The second theme returns in the horn before the martial mood is re-established to close the movement.
The Adagio, a long-limbed nocturne with a running commentary of sweeping figurations from the piano, contains some beautiful concerted instrumental writing. The finale resumes the marching rhythmic motion of the first movement with its introduction and bold main theme. Standing in bold relief to this vigorous music is the lyrical second theme, one of the best-loved melodies in the entire orchestral literature, a grand inspiration in the ripest Romantic tradition. (Years ago, this melody was lifted from the Concerto by the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley and fitted with sufficiently maudlin phrases to become the popular hit Full Moon and Empty Arms.) These two themes, the martial and the romantic, alternate for the remainder of the movement. The coda rises through a finely crafted line of mounting tension to bring this work to an electrifying close.
Rachmaninoff once wrote, “I try to make music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.” The heart of a true Romantic beat beneath the stern exterior of this man; his music is a direct link to the great traditions of the 19th-century masters.
Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a (1941)
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
Alberto Ginastera, Argentina’s most famous and widely performed composer, was the outstanding creative figure in South American music following the death of Villa-Lobos in 1959. Ginastera’s career was divided between composition and education, and in the latter capacity he held posts at leading conservatories and universities in Argentina and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. His musical works, many written on American commissions, include three operas, two ballets, six concertos, eleven film scores, eight orchestral works, various vocal and choral compositions, and much music for chamber ensembles and piano. Ginastera traveled extensively to oversee the presentation of his scores and to adjudicate major musical competitions, and for his contributions to music he was honored with many awards, including memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ginastera divided his works into two stylistic categories. The first (“Nationalism”) includes his music before the mid-1950s, which displays overt influences of Argentine musical traits and themes. He modeled the rhythms and melodies of these works on the folksongs and dances known as musica criolla, though he seldom used literal quotations. This nationalistic music is imbued with the symbolism of the indigenous peoples, the pampas and the “gauchesco” tradition, for which he became the leading musical spokesperson. Ginastera’s second style (“Neo-Expressionism”) began around 1958 and encompassed most of his later compositions, works characterized by such modernist devices as polytonality, serial writing, use of quarter-tones and other micro intervals, and an extension of instrumental resources. All of this technical jargon might sound rather imposing, but these techniques lend the music a power of expression reinforced by expert craftsmanship that is always tantalizing to the ear and cogent in its expression. Ginastera’s later works bear a strong affinity with the expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, which was itself an extension of the great European Classical-Romantic tradition. Ginastera’s compositions mark him as one of the most important members of the international community of composers and demonstrate the manner in which he was able to combine the melodic and rhythmic resources of the folk music of his native Argentina with the compositional idioms of the great modern masters.
Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, became familiar with Ginastera’s first ballet, Panambi, during the company’s tour of South America on 1941. Recognizing the young composer’s genius, Kirstein commissioned from Ginastera Estancia, a stage work for the Ballet Caravan with a scenario based on Argentine country life. Though the company was disbanded the following year before it had performed the new work, a suite of dances from the score was given on May 12, 1943 at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón which confirmed Ginastera’s position as a leading figure in Argentine musical life. (The full ballet was not staged until 1952, at the Colón.) In extracting the suite from Estancia, Ginastera omitted the songs for baritone based on texts from the great epic poem of the “gauchesco” literature, Martin Fierro, and several pastoral scenes. Except for the gentle second dance, Danza del trigo (“Dance of the Wheat”), the symphonic suite, comprising Los trabajadores agricolas (“The Workers of the Land”), Los peones de hacienda (“The Cattle Men”) and Danza final: Malambo (“Final Dance: Malambo”), is brilliant and driving, largely built on short, recurring rhythmic and melodic patterns that accumulate enormous energy.
The preface to the score notes, “The deep and bare beauty of the land, its richness and natural strength, constitutes the basis of Argentine life. This ballet presents various daily aspects of the activities of an ‘estancia’ (Argentine ranch), from dawn to dusk, with a symbolic sense of continuity. The plot of the ballet shows a country girl who at first despises the man of the city. She finally admires him when he proves that he can perform the most rough and difficult tasks of the country.”
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813)
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
“Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world; and from Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta, his name is constantly on every tongue.” So begins Stendhal’s Life of Rossini, completed in 1823, two years after the Napoleonic demise. Rossini’s conquest of the musical world began a decade earlier, when, in 1813 in Venice, at the age of 21, he unveiled the opera seria Tancredi in February and the opera buffa L’Italiana in Algeri three months later. So popular was Tancredi that a Venetian court edict strictly forbade the humming, whistling or singing of its hit tune (Di tanti palpiti) in any of the city’s legal chambers. A similar success followed L’Italiana in Algeri, which was produced, Stendhal reported, in five Italian cities within months of its premiere. “No composer in the first half of the 19th century,” wrote Philip Gossett in the New Grove Dictionary, “enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini. His contemporaries recognized him as the greatest Italian composer of his time.” In his two whirlwind decades as a full-time composer, Rossini completed some 35 operas — almost every one a resounding success.
L’Italiana in Algeri and Tancredi of 1813 were Rossini’s first full-length operas, his talent having been previously confined to such one-act farces as La Scala di Seta and Il Signor Bruschino. His fabled compositional celerity is exampled by L’Italiana: a report in the Venetian press after the opera’s premiere held that he devoted all of 27 days to preparing the score. (The composer himself, however, told a German correspondent that he had polished it off in a mere eighteen.) The zany plot of the opera presents Isabella, an Italian lady of respectable lineage, who sails to Algeria to rescue her lover, a captive of the Bey of Algeria. Isabella bedevils the Bey with her machinations, including one to persuade him to join the Pappatacci, a secret society dedicated to absolute luxury and complete indifference to the activities of spouses or lovers. Rossini calculated that this silly story would prove irresistible to the opera lovers of Venice. He was right. Amid Stendhal’s lavish praise for L’Italiana, he noted that “never has a public enjoyed a spectacle more harmonious with its character, and, of all the operas that ever existed, this is the one destined to please the Venetians most.”
The Overture reflects the opera’s vivacity and high spirits. It begins with a slow introduction incorporating a languid melody sung by the solo oboe above a background of pizzicato strings. The main body of the Overture commences with a lively tune strutted out by the woodwinds and punctuated by chords from the full orchestra. The oboe gives the lyrical second theme before one of Rossini’s characteristic crescendi is unleashed to close the exposition. Rather than working up any more serious feelings in a development section, the music plunges directly into the recapitulation of the opening themes, using the crescendo to build to the brilliant closing pages.
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917, orchestrated 1920)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Ravel was tormented by the First World War. He was accepted into the armed forces despite his small stature and delicate health, but his physical constitution was not robust enough to withstand the rigors of combat and he was quickly discharged for medical reasons. Soon after he arrived home, his beloved mother lapsed into her final illness, and the shock of her death nearly prostrated him. His own failed health, his mental anguish over the War, and the loss of his mother kept him from doing much creative work during World War I. Le Tombeau de Couperin is his only important work of those difficult years.
The inspiration for Le Tombeau came from two obsessions that filled Ravel’s mind in 1917 — the sorrow caused by World War I and the need to retain the sanity represented by the tradition of French culture. In the piano suite that was the first version of Le Tombeau, each of the movements was dedicated to one of six friends of the composer who had fallen on the battlefield, a musical memorial to his countrymen and, perhaps, to his late mother as well. (He orchestrated four of them in 1920.) In a similar way, composers of the French Baroque age, François Couperin (1668-1733) among them, paid tribute in music to recently deceased colleagues. Such a piece was called a “tombeau,” literally a “tomb,” and Ravel intended such an association here. Beside just a way of eulogizing his comrades, however, the association with Couperin also represented for Ravel the continuity of the logic and refinement of French civilization. It was in this great Gallic tradition that Ravel sought intellectual and emotional shelter from crushing contemporary events. The title of Le Tombeau de Couperin, therefore, has a triple meaning: it is a memorial to family and close friends; it is a revival of some aspects of the musical style of the French Baroque; and, probably most significant for Ravel, it is a continuation of the venerable tradition of French culture and thought in a time of despair and nihilism.
Despite its heavy burden of associations, Le Tombeau de Couperin displays little of Ravel’s distraught mental state, especially in its effervescent orchestral version. Rather than a roiling, emotional document, Le Tombeau is a vision of the refined and elegant world of Versailles shimmering in retrospect through the medium of the dance, its most characteristic social manifestation. The succulently atmospheric orchestration and rich harmony clearly mark the modern origin of the work, but its buoyant rhythms and crystalline structure show the influence of the music of Couperin’s age. “This suite is a garland of musical flowers,” wrote Donald N. Ferguson, “grown from 17th-century seed in a 20th-century hothouse.”
The gossamer Prélude contains some dazzling passages for the woodwinds led by the oboe. The Forlane is based on a dance of Italian origin popular among the Venetian gondoliers before it crossed the Alps into France. The Menuet is the most durable of all Baroque dances. The Rigaudon is a vigorous duple-meter dance that originated in Provence.
Piano Concerto No. 2 (World Premiere)
Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967)
Christopher Theofanidis, one of America’s most prominent composers, was born in Dallas on December 18, 1967, and studied at the University of Houston (B.M.), Eastman School of Music (M.M.) and Yale University (M.A. and D.M.A.). He has served on the faculty of the Yale University School of Music since September 2008; his previous teaching appointments include the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Juilliard School, University of Houston, American Festival of the Arts and Texas Piano Institute. In summer 2014, he joined the faculties the Aspen Music Festival, Atlantic Center for the Arts and HighSCORE Festival in Italy. Theofanidis has held residencies with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, California Symphony and Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and has also served as a delegate to the United States–Japan Foundation’s Leadership Program. His numerous awards include the Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Barlow Prize, Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Bearns Prize of Columbia University, Fulbright Fellowship for study in France, six ASCAP Morton Gould Prizes, and a 2007 Grammy nomination for The Here and Now for chorus and orchestra, based on the poetry of Rumi. In October 2003, his Rainbow Body won the First Prize of £25,000 in the Masterprize Competition, a London-based, British-American partnership of EMI, the London Symphony Orchestra, Gramophone magazine, Classic FM and National Public Radio whose winner is chosen jointly by the public and a panel of experts; Rainbow Body has subsequently become one of the most frequently performed pieces by a living composer. Among Theofanidis’ commissions are compositions for the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., 700th anniversary of the Grimalkin Empire in Monaco, opening of Bass Hall in Fort Worth, 100th anniversary of the Oregon Symphony, and Heart of a Soldier for the San Francisco Opera in observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
The composer wrote of his Piano Concerto No. 2, commissioned by Harrisburg Symphony, “Each of the three movements has a starting point in a poem by Rumi [the venerable 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, scholar, theologian and mystic], whose work has long been a passion of mine. I have written many pieces based on his writings. These three poems come from Coleman Barks’ marvelous translations.
“The first movement was inspired by a poem called The Night Air, in which Rumi notes: … there’s a window open between us, mixing the night air of our beings … a way between voice and presence where information flows. When I think of those moments in which I have been closest to the open state Rumi describes here, they mostly occur in the middle of the night and outside in nature, where time and my mind seem to be still and I am open. The first movement starts with this sentiment of openness expressed musically. The three-note figure that represents it is also the DNA of the entire work — all three movements share this starting melodic shape, though they take on very different characters. In the first movement, that melodic kernel is always lyrical and expansive, and sometimes even sounds as if it is played into the night air by a giant mandolin (in a repeated note, strummed manner) by the solo piano. There is a feeling of open space.
“One of the great things about Rumi is that, as philosophical as his work is, it is also filled with surprises, strange turns of phrase, and even at times slapstick comedy to make his greater points, pairing the seemingly positive and negative. One of the many figures in his work who represents this characteristic appears in his poem Red Shirt: Has anybody seen the boy who used to come here? Round-faced troublemaker, quick to find a joke, slow to be serious. For Rumi, this is a positive thing. So important is humor in perception (and humor is, in the end, a kind of letting-go), that he then adds: I’d gladly spend years getting word of him, even third or fourth-hand. This movement alternates between a good-natured chorale (based on the three-note motive set out in the first movement) and fits of laughter represented in the solo piano by spurts of cluster chords, with sharp musical punch-lines. This is the most virtuosic of the Concerto’s movements, and requires a great deal of agility from the soloist … as well as a wry wit and good sense of timing.
“The third movement was inspired by The Fragile Vial: The body is a device to calculate the astronomy of the spirit. Look through that astrolabe and become oceanic. I tried to have the music in this movement alternate between a single, more fragile line (still based on that opening melodic shape from the first movement, but inverted — one lone melody being whistled in a canyon, so to speak) with that same material presented in more grand and surging ways that use enormous harmonic underpinnings and broader expanses. Both of these representations are, to my mind, in line with the scope of the poem.
“I am grateful to Jeffrey Biegel for leading the charge in making this piece a reality, and I’m honored to be back in Harrisburg, where I have been so many times over the years to visit my mother’s side of the family, based in Camp Hill and Lemoyne.”
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-1808)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Surprisingly, for this Symphony that serves as the locus classicus of orchestral music, little is known about its creation. There are vague hints that it may have been occasioned by an aborted love affair with either Therese von Brunswick or Giulietta Guicciardi. The theory has been advanced that it was influenced by a surge of patriotism fueled by an Austrian loss to the Napoleonic juggernaut. Even the famous remark attributed to Beethoven about the opening motive representing “Fate knocking at the door” is probably apocryphal, an invention of either Anton Schindler or Ferdinand Ries, two young men, close to the composer in his last years, who later published their often-untrustworthy reminiscences of him.
It is known that the time of the creation of the Fifth Symphony was one of intense activity for Beethoven. The four years during which the work was composed also saw the completion of a rich variety of other works: Piano Sonatas, Op. 53, 54 and 57; Fourth Piano Concerto; Fourth and Sixth Symphonies; Violin Concerto; the first two versions of Fidelio; Rasumovsky Quartets, Op. 59; Coriolan Overture; Mass in C major, Op. 86; and Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69. As was his practice with almost all of his important works, Beethoven revised and rewrote the Fifth Symphony for years.
Beethoven’s remarks about this Symphony are vague and elusive rather than concrete. The compositional problems he set for himself were abstract, musico-emotional ones that were little affected by external experiences, and not accessible to translation into mere words. In one of his few comments about the Symphony, he noted that, after the creation of the theme, “begins in my head the working-out in breadth, height, and depth. Since I am aware of what I want, the fundamental idea never leaves me. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.” By “picture” Beethoven meant not a visible painting, but rather an overview of the total structure of the Symphony, from its tiniest fragmentary component to the grand sweep of its total structure.
So completely did composition occupy Beethoven’s thoughts that he sometimes ignored the necessities of daily life. Concern with his appearance, eating habits, cleanliness, even his conversation, all gave way before his composing. There are many reports of his trooping the streets and woods of Vienna humming, singing, bellowing, penning a scrap of melody, and being, in general, oblivious to the people or places around him. (One suspects that his professed love of Nature grew in part from his need to find a solitary workplace free from distractions and the prying interest of his fellow Viennese.) This titanic struggle with musical tones produced such mighty monuments as the Fifth Symphony. With it, and with the Third Symphony completed only four years earlier, Beethoven launched music and art into the world of Romanticism.
In the history of music, Beethoven stands, Janus-faced, as the great colossus between two ages and two philosophies. The formal perfection of the preceding Classical period finds its greatest fulfillment in his works, which at the same time contain the taproot of the cathartic emotional experience from which grew the art of the 19th century. Beethoven himself evaluated his position as a creator in the following way: “Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life … the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” The Fifth Symphony is indeed such a “mediator.” Its message of victory through struggle, which so deeply touches both the heart and the mind, is achieved by a near-perfect balance of musical technique and passionate sentiment unsurpassed in the history of music. This Symphony was the work that won for Beethoven an international renown. Despite a few early misunderstandings due undoubtedly to its unprecedented concentration of energy, it caught on very quickly, and was soon recognized in Europe, England and America as a pathbreaking achievement. Its popularity has never waned.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, more than any work in the musical repertory, is the archetypal example of the technique and content of the form. Its overall structure is not one of four independent essays linked simply by tonality and style, as in the typical 18th-century example, but is rather a carefully devised whole in which each of the movements serves to carry the work inexorably toward its end. The progression from minor to major, from dark to light, from conflict to resolution is at the very heart of the “meaning” of this Symphony. The triumphant, victorious nature of the final movement as the logical outcome of all that preceded it established a model for the symphonies of the Romantic era. The psychological progression toward the finale — the relentless movement toward a life-affirming close — is one of the most important technical and emotional legacies Beethoven left to his successors. Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler — their symphonies are indebted to this one (and to the Ninth Symphony, as well) for the concept of how such a creation could be structured, and in what manner it should engage the listener.
The opening gesture is the most famous beginning in all of classical music. It establishes the stormy temper of the Allegro by presenting the germinal cell from which the entire movement grows. Though it is possible to trace this memorable four-note motive through most of the measures of the movement, the esteemed English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey pointed out that the power of the music is not contained in this fragment, but rather in the “long sentences” that Beethoven built from it. The key to appreciating Beethoven’s formal structures lies in being aware of the way in which the music moves constantly from one point of arrival to the next, from one sentence to the next. It is in the careful weighting of successive climaxes through harmonic, rhythmic and instrumental resources that Beethoven created the enormous energy and seeming inevitability of this monumental movement. The gentler second theme derives from the opening motive, and gives only a brief respite in the headlong rush that hurtles through the movement. It provides the necessary contrast while doing nothing to impede the music’s flow. The development section is a paragon of cohesion, logic and concision. The recapitulation roars forth after a series of breathless chords that pass from woodwinds to strings and back. The stark hammer-blows of the closing chords bring the movement to its powerful end.
The form of the second movement is a set of variations on two contrasting themes. The first theme, presented by violas and cellos, is sweet and lyrical in nature; the second, heard in horns and trumpets, is heroic. The ensuing variations on the themes alternate to produce a movement by turns gentle and majestic.
The following Scherzo returns the tempestuous character of the opening movement, as the four-note motto from the first movement is heard again in a brazen setting led by the horns. The fughetta, the “little fugue,” of the central trio is initiated by the cellos and basses. The Scherzo returns with the mysterious tread of the plucked strings, after which the music wanes until little more than a heartbeat from the timpani remains. Then begins another accumulation of intensity, first gradually, then more quickly, as a link to the finale, which arrives with a glorious proclamation, like brilliant sun bursting through ominous clouds.
The finale, set in the triumphant key of C major, is jubilant and martial. (Robert Schumann saw here the influence of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, one of the prominent composers of the French Revolution.) The sonata form proceeds apace. At the apex of the development, however, the mysterious end of the Scherzo is invoked to serve as the link to the return of the main theme in the recapitulation. It also recalls and compresses the emotional journey of the entire Symphony. The closing pages repeat the cadence chords extensively to discharge the enormous accumulated energy of the work.
Concerning the effect of the “struggle to victory” that is symbolized by the structure of the Fifth Symphony, a quote that Beethoven scribbled in a notebook of the Archduke Rudolf, one of his aristocratic piano and composition students, is pertinent. The composer wrote, “Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine — rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Tales from the Vienna Woods (1868)
Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899)
“This fiend of German birth, destitute of grace, delicacy and propriety, a disgusting practice,” spluttered one English writer of the 1830s about that diabolic instrument of immorality, The Waltz. Why, in this depraved display, he ranted, the couple actually danced in each other’s arms, refusing to keep the respectable distance that characterized all the good old dances. And it was that crafty pair of Viennese tunemongers, Johann Strauss and his buddy Josef Lanner, who were the main perpetrators of this insult to humanity, dispensing a concoction of sounds that Wagner described as “a stronger narcotic than alcohol” arousing “passions bordering on mad fury.” Alas for the poor Englishman, anything that irresistible was bound to be a success.
The waltz was descended from an Austrian peasant dance called a Ländler, a heavy-handed (footed?) affair in moderate triple meter that gained great popularity during Mozart’s last years in Vienna. (He wrote music for such German Dances when they were first allowed to join the staid, old minuet in the imperial balls in 1788.) The Viennese went mad over the new dance, and spent many nights literally dancing until dawn. Michael Kelly, a friend of Mozart and a participant in the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, noted such dedication in the 1790s to this sort of merriment that, “for the sake of ladies in the family way, who would not be persuaded to stay at home, there were apartments prepared, with every convenience for their accouchement, should they be unfortunately required.” It was really in the 1830s and 1840s, however, that the waltz established its definitive form and style and became a European mania. Strauss the Elder led a crack orchestra in his own compositions, faster-tempo and more lilting modernizations of the old Ländler. So great was the popularity of the waltz during his lifetime that, during at least one carnival season, the ballrooms of Vienna could accommodate 50,000 people in an evening — in a city with a population of 200,000. His reputation spread well beyond the Austrian capital, and he was called on to play 72 public concerts in England during the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.
Papa Johann tried to discourage his sons from going into the music business, but Johann, Jr. was determined to be part of the waltz madness. He established a rival orchestra to that of his father and both prospered for a time, but at his father’s death in 1849, the son merged the two ensembles. Strauss, the Younger, was soon dubbed “The Waltz King,” and he ruled over his domain as had no one in the history of music. He not only made pots of money — he made people happy. One French journalist wrote in 1852, “In every house, on every piano in Vienna, lie Strauss waltzes…. They are sung and trilled and played throughout Europe. Plebeian and aristocrat hum and pipe them; orchestra and barrel organ play them. We hear them on the street, at the ball, in the garden, and at the theater.” The waltz continued to flourish into the 20th century, becoming almost an opiate in the feverish years before World War I when the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was rapidly decaying. The waltz became, and remains, a symbol of a better, more care-free time, when an elegantly beribboned captain would whirl away the night with his dazzling companion. The door to this beautiful past is still held open by those who created it — Johann Strauss, father and son.
Tales from the Vienna Woods, one of the younger Strauss’ greatest works, was first heard in Vienna on June 9, 1868 at a glamorous garden party given in the Augarten by the Prince and Princess Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst. Though its geographical title indicates the most immediate inspiration for the music (Joseph Wechsberg believed it represents “the city dweller’s secret longing for all the things he lacks in the grey, dark streets”), another influence on this piece was the memory of the 43-year-old composer’s father. For the introduction and one of the later sections, Strauss borrowed a motive from his father’s waltz Die Schwalben (Op. 208), and gave it one of the most poignant settings found in all of 19th-century music. Tales from the Vienna Woods has always been one of Strauss’ best-loved waltzes. When the composer was returning to Vienna from his visit to America in 1872, he stopped at Baden-Baden to present concerts of his music. One of the spa’s residents that summer was the German Emperor Wilhelm I, who insisted that Strauss play the piece time and again. Following one performance, the Adjutant General of the Prussian Court appeared on the stage and presented the completely surprised Strauss with the Order of the Red Eagle, one of Germany’s highest honors.
La Valse, Poème choréographique (1919-1920)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Ravel first considered composing a musical homage to Johann Strauss as early as 1906. The idea forced itself upon him again a decade later, but during the years of the First World War, he could not bring himself to work on a score which he had tentatively titled “Wien” (“Vienna”). Since the war had sapped a great deal of his energy, causing his health to be precarious for the rest of his life, it took a proposal from the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1918 to convince Ravel to bring the project to fruition. (Diaghilev hoped to pair Ravel’s new work with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, but upon its completion, the impresario was dissatisfied with La Valse — “a masterpiece, but it’s not a ballet,” he said — which then had to wait until 1929 for its stage premiere under Ida Rubinstein.)
By January 1919, when Ravel was immersed in the composition of his tribute to Vienna, he said that he felt he was “waltzing frantically.” He saw La Valse both as “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” and as a “fantastic and fatefully inescapable whirlpool.” The “inescapable whirlpool” was the First World War toward which Vienna marched in three-quarter time, salving its social and political conscience with the luscious strains of Johann Strauss. There is more than a touch of the surreal in La Valse. Familiar and real things are placed against a background strange and a little threatening in its disorienting effect. This artifice paralleled the situation that Ravel saw as characteristic of late 19th-century Vienna in particular and Europe in general.
A surrealistic haze shrouds the opening of La Valse, a vague introduction from which fragments of themes gradually emerge. In the composer’s words, “At first the scene is dimmed by a kind of swirling mist, through which one discerns, vaguely and intermittently, the waltzing couples. Little by little the vapors disappear, the illumination grows brighter, revealing an immense ballroom filled with dancers; the blaze of the chandeliers comes to full splendor. An Imperial court ball about 1855.” In the form typical of the Viennese waltz, several continuous sections follow, each based on a different melody.
At the half-way point of the score, however, the murmurs of the introduction return, and the melodies heard previously in clear and complete versions are now fragmented, played against each other, unable to regain the rhythmic flow of their initial appearances. Persistent rustlings in the low strings and woodwinds, flutter-tongue wails from the flutes, snarling muted brass, abrupt and violent crescendos challenge the old waltz melodies. The musical panacea of 1855 cannot smother the reality of 1915, however, and the music becomes consumed by the harsh thrust of the roaring triple meter transformed from a seductive dance into a demonic juggernaut. The dissonances grind, the rhythms become brutal, the orchestral colors blaze as the world of order is sucked toward the awaiting cataclysm in what Ravel called “a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.” At the almost unbearable peak of tension, the dance is torn apart by a five-note figure spread through the entire orchestra, a figure so alien to the triple meter that it destroys the waltz and brings this brilliant, forceful and disturbing work to a shattering close.
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” (1957)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
“I went with the demonstrators to the Winter Palace, and the spectacle of the savage violence meted out to our unarmed working people that day imprinted itself forever on my memory. January 9, 1905 was sunny and frosty. From every corner of St. Petersburg, the city’s poor wound their way in endless files toward the Tsar’s palace. The lines of demonstrators criss-crossed the old city like the threads of a spider web. The people crowded close to the palace and waited, an hour, then another hour. Would the Tsar come out and accept the workers’ petition? But the Tsar did not appear. The entreaties of the unarmed people were answered by a bugle call…. Again we waited, tense and with a vague foreboding. Another signal. The troops stirred slightly. Yet the crowd was still smiling, shifting from foot to foot from the cold and the frost. There was a third signal, and then an unusual booming sound. What’s that? They’re shooting? ‘It’s nothing,’ said a voice, ‘those are just blanks.’ Yet people were falling nearby — women, children…. The people could not believe what was happening. But the Tsar’s mounted police were galloping to the attack — to attack the people!”
Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), who was to become a leading figure in the Russian Revolution as the organizer of the country’s women workers, its Commissar for Social Welfare, and the Soviet ambassador to Mexico and Sweden, left this horrifying account of “Bloody Sunday” — January 9, 1905 — when a peaceful protest by the workers of St. Petersburg tried to present a petition to Tsar Nicolas II, Russia’s “Little Father,” for relief of their no-longer-tolerable oppression. The workers, carrying religious icons and singing hymns, were met by the imperial troops with stunning violence in the vast square outside the Winter Palace (which today houses the Hermitage Museum), and 1,200 died. Revolution in Russia was born that day, and it erupted a dozen years later with a force that changed the course of history.
Dmitri Shostakovich first considered writing a work to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in 1955, but it was apparently an event with striking similarities to the catastrophe of 1905 that finally sparked the composition of his Symphony No. 11 — the brutal suppression of the October 1956 uprising in Budapest by Soviet tanks and machine guns. In Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s controversial edition of Shostakovich’s purported memoirs, the composer is quoted as saying, “The people think and act similarly in many things. I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘The Year 1905.’ It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” The work was premiered in Moscow on October 30, 1957 as part of the fortieth anniversary observances of the 1917 Revolution, and earned for Shostakovich a Lenin Prize in April 1958 and an invitation to chair the jury of the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition that same month (which was won by Van Cliburn in a triumph that echoed around the world).
The Eleventh Symphony, matched in its scale in Shostakovich’s output only by the Fourth and Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphonies, distills the emotional import of the tragedy of 1905 into four epic movements through which are woven traditional folk melodies as well as a quotation from the composer’s own work. The icy pre-dawn in St. Petersburg’s huge Palace Square is suggested by ominous, slow-moving chords in hollow harmonies. The quiet taps on the timpani and the distant fanfares might be either a call for the workers to gather or a premonition of the tragedy to come. The flutes present an ironically sweet harmonization of the 19th-century prison song Listen, which is taken up as the movement’s main thematic material: Autumn’s black night — and in that gloom, An awful vision: prison. As the hours drag by, In the night’s long silence, Hear, like a sigh, the cry, Echoed slowly, sadly … Listen. The Convict, another Russian melody suggesting the oppression of the people (The night is dark so mark each minute, Though high walls hide the stars), is intoned solemnly by the cellos and basses. The movement ends with a return of the glacial chords and the unsettling fanfares.
The 9th of January evokes the massacre. The thematic substance of the movement derives from the folksong O Thou, Our Tsar, Our Little Father, which is given in a furious, triple-time, accompanimental version by the low strings before being presented in its original form by clarinets and bassoons. A chorale-like setting for brass of Bare Your Heads from Shostakovich’s Ten Poems for Chorus on Texts by Revolutionary Poets of 1951 bridges to a melancholy transformation of Our Tsar that is redolent of a Tchaikovsky waltz, perhaps a sad reflection on the imperial world that was beginning to crack on that frozen January morning. The music then builds with overwhelming force as the Cossacks menace the crowd. A momentary lull is provided by an echo of the glacial chords from the first movement before the Cossacks’ full fury is unleashed by a hammered imitative passage whose theme is derived from the quiet timpani strokes heard at the Symphony’s outset. The glacial chords come again, now quivering with trills of disbelief and horror, as do the fanfares, tinged with dissonance, and a dying attempt to revive Listen.
The third movement, In Memoriam, is a requiem not just for those who died but also for the failed hope that a new life could be wrested from the old regime. Another folksong, You Fell As Victims, is given by the violas as a lament over the trudging, dirge-like foundation in the pizzicato cellos and basses.
In his study The New Shostakovich (1990), Ian MacDonald posits that the title of the finale — Nabat: “The Tocsin” or “The Alarm” — was borrowed from a 19th-century journal edited by Narodnik Piotr Tkachev, who advocated that no action, however apparently immoral, was forbidden to the true revolutionary. The powerful, marching music (based on the protest anthem Rage, Tyrants) that occupies most of the closing movement suggests the revolutionary fever that spread inexorably among the Russian masses following “Bloody Sunday.” After a shattering climax, a long English horn incantation of Bare Your Heads leads to the Symphony’s culmination, which overlays the triple-meter transformation of O Thou, Our Tsar, Our Little Father from the second movement with a final stentorian proclamation of Bare Your Heads.
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodd
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2), Op. 132 (1955)
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Alan Hovhaness, one of the most intriguing and prolific figures in American music, was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts on March 8, 1911; his Armenian-born father was a chemistry professor and his mother was Scottish. Hovhaness began improvising and composing at an early age and studied at the New England Conservatory in the 1930s with Frederick Converse. In 1940, he was appointed organist at an Armenian church near Boston, from which post he investigated the music of his father’s native land. Two years later, he attended the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood on scholarship, but criticism there of his music by Copland and Foss, his intensive study of Oriental music, philosophy and religion, and his increasingly mystical attitude toward his art left him dissatisfied with his earlier work, so he summarily destroyed most of what he had written before 1940, said to have consisted of seven symphonies, five string quartets, a number of operas and several hundred other compositions.
The influence of Armenian and Oriental music on Hovhaness’ work became pervasive after 1945. In style, his works are primarily melodic, often melismatic and incantatory, with a harmonic vocabulary dependent on various modal formulas. There are frequent excursions into fugue and imitative textures, testimony to his long interest in the music of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. During the 1950s, he traveled widely, notably to India, Japan and Korea, where his music was well received and where he discovered new stylistic elements that soon appeared in his compositions. Like Olivier Messiaen of France, Hovhaness sought to reconcile mystical and mundane, Occidental and Oriental, ancient and modern in music of distinctive personality. He died in Seattle on June 21, 2000.
Hovhaness’ musical output is diverse in content and vast in quantity, probably exceeded in the 20th century only by that of the Frenchman Darius Milhaud. There are nearly 400 separate pieces, including nine operas, two ballets, 67 symphonies (!), several dozen independent works for orchestra and wind band, a hundred chamber pieces, an almost equal number for voices, and many compositions for solo piano. Most of his works have evocative titles. Among the symphonies, for example, are ones called Mysterious Mountain, Nanga Parvat (one of the world’s most remote mountains, in Kashmir), Silver Pilgrimage (after a novel by the Indian writer M. Anantanarayan), Fra Angelico (the 15th-century Florentine painter), St. Vartan (an Armenian folk hero martyred in 451 A.D.), Ararat, Odysseus and Mount St. Helens; one of his symphonies was written for string orchestra and Korean percussion instruments. The composer spoke of his music in almost metaphysical terms: “To me, atonality is against nature. There is a center to everything that exists. The planets have the sun, the moon, the earth. The reason I like Oriental music is that everything has a firm center. All music with a center is tonal. Music without a center is fine for a minute or two, but it soon sounds all the same…. Things that are very complicated tend to disappear and get lost. Simplicity is difficult, not easy. Beauty is simple. All unnecessary elements are removed — only essence remains.”
Hovhaness wrote the Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, in 1955 for Leopold Stokowski’s first concert as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Of its title, he noted, “Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. To some, the ‘Mysterious Mountain’ may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside — Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton.” The composer went on to explain about the musical structure of the work: “The first and last movements are hymn-like and lyrical, using irregular metrical forms. The first subject of the second movement, a double fugue, is developed in a slow vocal style. The rapid second subject is played by the strings, with its own counter-subject and with strict four-voice canonic episodes and triple counterpoint episodes…. In the last movement, a chant in 7/4 is played softly by muted horns and trombones. A giant wave in a thirteen-beat meter rises to a climax and recedes…. A middle melody is sung by the oboes and clarinets in a quintuple beat. Muted violins return with the earlier chant, which is gradually given to the full orchestra.”
Following the premiere of Mysterious Mountain, Hubert Roussel, critic of the Houston Post, wrote, “Hovhaness produces a texture of the utmost beauty, gentleness, distinction and expressive potential. The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music.”
Suite from Appalachian Spring (1943-1944)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
In 1942, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of America’s greatest patrons of the arts, went to see a dance recital by Martha Graham. So taken with the genius of the dancer-choreographer was Mrs. Coolidge that she offered to commission three ballets specially for her, and Graham chose as composers of the music Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith and an American whose work she had admired for over a decade — Aaron Copland. In 1931, Graham had staged Copland’s Piano Variations as the ballet Dithyramb, and she was eager to have another dance piece from him, especially in view of his recent successes with Billy the Kid and Rodeo. She devised a scenario based on memories of her grandmother’s farm in turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania, and it proved to be a perfect match for the direct, quintessentially American style that Copland espoused in those years.
The premiere was set for October 1944 (in honor of Mrs. Coolidge’s 80th birthday) in the auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the limited space in the theater allowed Copland to use a chamber orchestra of only thirteen instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and nine strings). He began work on the score in June 1943 in Hollywood while writing the music for the movie North Star and finished it a year later in Cambridge, where he was delivering the Horatio Appleton Lamb Lectures at Harvard. The plot, the music and most of the choreography were completed before a title for the piece was selected. Graham was taken at just that time with the name of a poem by Hart Crane — Appalachian Spring — and she adopted it for her new ballet, though the content of the poem has no relation with the stage work.
Appalachian Spring was unveiled in Washington on October 30, 1944, and repeated in New York in May to great acclaim, garnering the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Music Critics Circle Award as the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season. Soon after its New York premiere, Copland revised the score as a suite of eight continuous sections for full orchestra by eliminating about eight minutes of music in which, he said, “the interest is primarily choreographic.” On October 4, 1945, Artur Rodzinski led the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of this version, which has become one the best-loved works of 20th-century American music.
Edwin Denby’s description of the ballet’s action from his review of the New York premiere in May 1945 was reprinted in the published score: “[The ballet concerns] a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the 19th century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”
Copland wrote, “The suite arranged from the ballet contains the following sections, played without interruption:
“1. Very Slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
“2. Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A-major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
“3. Moderato. Duo for the Bride and her Intended — scene of tenderness and passion.
“4. Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings — suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
“5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride — presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
“6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
“7. Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title The Gift To Be Simple. The melody I borrowed and used almost literally, is called ‘Simple Gifts.’ It has this text:
’Tis the gift to be simple,
’Tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley
Of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
’Til by turning, turning we come round right.
“8. Moderate. Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left ‘quiet and strong in their new house.’ Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.”
Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”), Op. 64 (1911, 1914-1915)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
In 1831 Hector Berlioz weathered a wild and stormy sea voyage from Marseilles to Livorno on his way to install himself in the Eternal City as winner of the Prix de Rome; the Corsair Overture is, in part, a musical record of that adventure. When he was a boy, Claude Debussy enjoyed halcyon paddles in the Mediterranean on family outings at Cannes, but twenty years later he nearly perished in a violent passage along the Brittany coast; both impressions found their way into his La Mer. And so it was also a first-hand experience of nature that planted the seed for Richard Strauss’ most grandiloquent composition — An Alpine Symphony.
Strauss was born and raised in Bavaria, lived in the region for most of his life, and ultimately settled in the lovely twin-towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, tucked beneath the northern face of the massive Zugspitze. As a teenager, he once went on an Alpine climb with a local group of hikers. The party lost its way during the ascent, and was overtaken and drenched to the skin by storms on the way down. Strauss wrote to his friend Ludwig Thuille (a composer and later professor of composition at the Munich Conservatory) that he had found the experience so exhilarating that he was inspired to improvise some musical impressions of the climb at the piano: “Naturally it conjured up a lot of nonsense and giant Wagnerian tone-painting.” It was not until 1900, more than two decades later, that Strauss again broached the subject of his mountain music. Soon after finishing Ein Heldenleben, he wrote to his parents that he was considering a tone poem “which would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland. Otherwise so far only the idea (love-tragedy of an artist) and a few themes exist.” It was just at that time, however, that his creative energy shifted from the concert hall to the opera stage, and, except for his 1904 paean to life among the pots and pans, the Symphonia Domestica, all of his compositions for the next dozen years were operas.
Der Rosenkavalier was premiered with great success at Dresden on January 26, 1911, and Strauss was eager to follow it quickly with other stage works. However, his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was a meticulous and thoughtful writer who found it impossible to produce a new book on such short notice. Since Strauss was not one to take potential inactivity sitting down (he called the Oboe Concerto and the Duet-Concertino, composed when he was in his eighties, “wrist exercises … to prevent my right wrist from going to sleep prematurely”), he sketched out a fifty-minute Alpine Symphony early in 1911, “though,” he confessed, “it gives me less pleasure than shaking maybugs off trees.” Despite such initial reluctance, however, much of the new work was sketched during the spring and early summer before he turned to the composition of incidental music for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which five years later grew into the iridescent opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss occasionally tinkered with the Symphony during the following years, but did no serious further work on it until November 1914, when Hofmannsthal was (again) keeping him waiting for the final act of Die Frau ohne Schatten. The polishing and orchestration of Eine Alpensinfonie took exactly 100 days; the work was completed on February 8, 1915. Except for the Japanische Festmusik of 1940, a political potboiler celebrating the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire, it was to be his last composition for large orchestra.
For the Symphony’s premiere, Strauss enlisted his favorite ensemble, the Dresden Court Orchestra, and conducted them in a concert in Berlin on October 28, 1915. In gratitude for their having given the first performances of four of the six operas he had written to that time, Strauss dedicated the score to the orchestra and its director, Count Nicolaus Seebach. The work was first heard in America just six months later, when Stokowski used it as one of the blockbuster pieces (along with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony) that launched his tenure as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Strauss regarded Eine Alpensinfonie as one of his best works, and he conducted it whenever management assented to hire sufficient players; he requested (unsuccessfully) that it be included on his first post-World War II concert outside Germany, in London. When he crossed the German border in 1945 to take a rest cure in Switzerland after the War, he presented the frontier commander, a French officer, with the manuscript score as a prized trophy showing his respect for the nation of France (Strauss had received the Legion of Honor rosette many years before); the autograph is still in the French National Library.
Two of the outstanding musical features of Eine Alpensinfonie are the size of its orchestra and the specificity of its programmatic reference. Strauss here asked for a total of more than 100 players, including quadruple winds and brasses, an organ, a large string section and such instrumental exotica as a Heckelphone (a large baritone oboe that the noted German instrumental maker Wilhelm Heckel [whose family perfected the key mechanism of the bassoon] developed at the request of Richard Wagner for an instrument combining “something of the character of the oboe with the mellow but powerful sound of the alphorn”; Strauss also used it in Salome and Elektra), tenor tubas, cow bells and clever percussion contraptions to reproduce the sounds of wind and thunder. To assist the wind players in sustaining their long notes (Strauss had been challenging the breath control of the woodwinds and brasses with the notational admonition “aushalten!” since at least Till Eulenspiegel), he suggested that they use the Aerophor (mistakenly given as “Aerophon” in the score), invented in 1911 by one Bernhard Samuels of Schwerin. By means of a tube, this device could supply air from a small bellows operated by the musician’s foot to the mouthpiece to sustain a tone indefinitely. (Samuels patented this curiosity in 1912.) In addition to the musicians on stage, Strauss also required a battalion of twenty horns and pairs of trumpets and trombones to sound hunting calls in the wings during the Ascent section of the Symphony. Such an effect, while unusual, was not, however, unprecedented. Ardent Wagnerian disciple that he was, Strauss could solicit as example the twelve off-stage horns in both Tannhäuser and Tristan, as well as the twelve additional trumpets plus some two dozen other players required for Lohengrin. Strauss is reported to have said at the dress rehearsal for the premiere, “At last I have learned to orchestrate.”
Besides the sheer size and variety of the orchestra for Eine Alpensinfonie, Strauss’ marshaling of such an army of musicians also had an implicit cultural message, as Alan Jefferson pointed out in his biography of the composer: “Even during the First World War, he was still writing for gargantuan orchestras because it was expected of him, and also because they were easily accessible. Germany was a huge, strong, tough and rich nation, demanding the kind of music which Strauss was able to match with his Alpensinfonie and his opera of 1918, Die Frau ohne Schatten.” In contrast, by 1915 the rigors of war visited upon France following the German invasion had already forced Stravinsky to abandon the large orchestra of The Rite of Spring for chamber ensembles, piano and voices.
Though this work is labeled as a “symphony” — and many learned commentators have tried to squeeze its single musical span into Classical sonata-allegro or Lisztian four-movements-in-one — Eine Alpensinfonie is unabashedly a tone poem, the most explicit example of the genre that Strauss ever created. The score bears no fewer than 22 graphic phrases attached to its various sections, representing Alpine vistas, the phenomena of nature, and the progress of the climber. It is a piece almost entirely concerned with external depiction rather than with the expression of the intense states of personal emotion that marked Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra and other of his earlier orchestral works. For this, Strauss was (and continues to be) criticized, though the consummate craftsmanship of the work’s scoring and the manner in which he achieved his pictorial goal are beyond reproach.
Eine Alpensinfonie is concerned with a period of 24 hours upon the mountain. The work opens with the shimmering stillness of Night, depicted by a descending scale evolving from a unison B-flat; every note of the scale is sustained to create a luminous curtain of harmony. The trombones and tuba present the theme of the mountain, a simple, craggy motive built around the most fundamental notes of the harmonic series. (Strauss received some criticism at the work’s premiere for the diatonic simplicity of its themes. He said that their plainness was intentional and natural: “I wanted to compose for once as a cow gives milk.”) The orchestra stirs, and mounts an enormous crescendo while the brasses give out fanfares built from the mountain theme to prepare for Sunrise, a climactic moment ingeniously derived from the descending scale of Night.
The Ascent commences with an energetic, wide-ranging theme that rises through the strings into the body of the orchestra. A blast of hunters’ horns in the distance marks the Entry into the Forest. A lugubrious theme in the horns and trombones suggests dense foliage, from which float the songs of birds. The ascent resumes, and the climber finds himself Wandering by the Brook, which, upstream, leads to a Waterfall. The music suggests a striking panorama. In the mist above the whirlpool appears an Apparition, perhaps the Fairy of the Alps that, according to legend, has inhabited those mountains since ancient times. It was the spirit that haunted Lord Byron’s Manfred and served as the catalyst for the scherzo of the fine symphony inspired from Tchaikovsky by Byron’s poem.
Climbing above the waterfall, the traveler comes first to Flowery Meadows and then to The Mountain Pasture, where he is greeted with the sounds of cowbells and the yodels of the herdsmen. The horn gives forth a lovely bit of pastoral lyricism before the climber goes Through Thicket and Undergrowth by the Wrong Way, only to emerge On the Glacier, depicted by a fanfare-like theme of short-long rhythms. Crossing the ice, the traveler has some Dangerous Moments before he arrives On the Summit. The magnificent sight has almost taken his breath away (a halting, tentative theme in the oboe), but its grandeur soon floods over him and he experiences a Vision. The sun has passed its zenith for the day, however, and Mists Arise (rustlings and long scales in the strings). Quickly, The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured. There is a brief Elegy (a long, unison melody in the strings), which is interrupted by the Calm Before the Storm. The traveler contends with violent Thunder and Storm during his Descent. The storm breaks in time to reveal the day’s Sunset, and Eine Alpensinfonie closes with an introspective Epilogue and the return of Night.
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1879-1880)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Versatility is one of the qualities of a master creator. Brahms simultaneously composed the very different Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures; Beethoven wrote the stormy Fifth and the pastoral Sixth Symphonies at the same time; Ravel worked on the jazzy Concerto in G and the dramatic Left Hand Concerto together — and Tchaikovsky created contemporaneously one of the orchestral repertory’s noisiest and one of its most warmly intimate pieces.
In 1879, Tchaikovsky’s publisher, Peter Jurgenson, requested that his client devise some festive strains of celebratory nature to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of Czar Alexander II. The project was too important for Tchaikovsky to refuse, so he set to work composing a programmatic overture based on some popular themes that would depict one of Mother Russia’s proudest moments — the defeat of Napoleon at Moscow. “The overture will be very noisy,” Tchaikovsky warned his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, in a letter dated October 22, 1880. “I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value.” He called the piece, simply, Overture, 1812. As though some psychic compensatory apparatus had switched on while he was writing 1812, Tchaikovsky simultaneously created a delightful work on an intimate scale for string orchestra, a score of geniality and grace and nearly Mozartian sensitivity — the Serenade for Strings. “The Serenade,” Tchaikovsky continued in his letter to Mme. von Meck, “I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it deeply and venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.”
The Serenade was one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites among his own creations. “I am violently in love with this work, and can’t wait for it to be played,” he wrote to Jurgenson soon after the score was finished in October 1880. He also revealed to Jurgenson that he conceived the work as a symphony, then thought that the sketches might be appropriate for a string quartet, or perhaps an orchestral suite, but was finally “inspired” (Tchaikovsky’s word) to use them for this Serenade. Late in 1880 Nicholas Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory, gathered together a student orchestra and read through the piece at a private rehearsal. Tchaikovsky appreciated the gesture (all the more since Rubinstein was mortally ill and not well enough to stand to conduct — he had to be seated throughout the session), but he still looked forward to a carefully prepared, professional performance of the Serenade. In the meantime, Tchaikovsky advised Mme. von Meck further about the nature of the new work, which she had heard only on the piano. (That summer she hired an 18-year-old Paris Conservatory student to partner her in four-hand keyboard pieces and to tutor her children in piano. She asked him also to make a four-hand transcription of some excerpts from Swan Lake. He did, and they became the young musician’s first published scores. His name was Claude Debussy.) “I wish,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “that you could hear my Serenade properly performed. It loses so much played at the piano, and I think that the middle movements — played by the violins — would win your sympathy. As regards the first and last movements, they are merely a play of sounds, and do not touch the heart. The first movement is my homage to Mozart; it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model. Do not laugh, dear lady, at my zeal in standing up for my latest creation. Perhaps my paternal feelings are so warm because it is the youngest child of my fancy.” Tchaikovsky’s wish for a public performance was fulfilled on October 30, 1881, when Eduard Nápravnik presented the work to an appreciative audience in St. Petersburg, which responded by demanding an immediate encore of the Waltz movement. A similar success followed the Moscow premiere on January 28, 1882. Tchaikovsky toured to Hamburg, Prague, Paris and London with the Serenade in 1887-1888, and took it along on his 1891 visit to the United States, where he presented it at concerts in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Tchaikovsky titled the first movement Pezzo [‘piece’] in forma di Sonatina, “sonatina” being a sonata form without a development section. A sonorous introduction in slow tempo prefaces the main part of the movement. The principal theme is a lilting strain that sets the sweetly lyrical style obtaining throughout most of the work. The complementary subject is a skittering melody in rapid rhythms. A recall of the introduction rounds out the opening movement. The following movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known and most admired waltzes. The Elégie touches on the deepest emotions elicited by the Serenade. The finale, Théma russe, begins with a slow prologue based on a Volga River work song that appeared in a collection of folk music by Mili Balakirev. The ensuing Allegro con spirito uses another Russian folk song, this one a street ditty from the Kolomna district, near Moscow. The slow introduction from the first movement returns before a final, Cossackian flourish brings the Serenade to a rousing close.
Oboe Concerto in D major (1945)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Strauss largely withdrew from public life after 1935 to his villa at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. He lived there throughout the War, spared the physical ravages of the conflict but deeply wounded by the loss of many friends and the bombing of Dresden, Munich and Vienna. In October 1945, under the threat of being called before the Denazification Board, he moved to Switzerland, where he lived for the next four years. He and his wife, Pauline, stayed in various hotels in several towns and cities (her shrewish tantrums and complaints led to frequent management requests for them to seek lodgings elsewhere) before settling into the Palace Hotel in Montreux. Strauss was cleared by the Board in June 1948, but chose to stay in Switzerland for medical treatment that winter, returning to Garmisch in May 1949, just four months before his death. Though increasingly feeble during his Swiss sojourn, his mind was clear, and he continued to compose.
“Wrist exercises” said Strauss of his instrumental pieces of the post-World War II years — the Concerto for Oboe, a little Allegretto for Violin and Piano, and the Duet-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, Strings and Harp, his last instrumental work. “They are workshop labors intended to prevent my right wrist, freed from conducting, from going to sleep prematurely… craftsmanlike study materials for our worthy instrumentalists.” Strauss undertook the Oboe Concerto in September 1945, shortly before he left Garmisch for Switzerland, at the request of John de Lancie, a young performer stationed with the American occupation troops in Bavaria. De Lancie, who was one of several American musicians the venerable composer welcomed to his lovely villa in Garmisch, returned home to become principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, later, director of the renowned Curtis Institute in that city. When Strauss and Pauline left for Switzerland in October, he took along his sketches for the new Concerto, and finished the score at the village of Baden-bei-Zürich soon after he arrived. The piece was premiered by the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra and oboist Marcel Saillet on February 26, 1946; Volkmar Andreae conducted. Shortly before the score was published in 1948, Strauss revised and extended the coda of the finale.
In his fine volume on the composer’s life and works, Ernst Krause noted the characteristics of Strauss’ late instrumental works: “They consist of a relaxed, transparent structure with a great reduction of the instrumental apparatus, which is used with great finesse. The themes, which in their strongly stylized character are sometimes of no great ‘weight,’ are of a slender and graceful lightness which is almost Mozartian. They stand out from a straightforward harmonic background and engage in virtuosic arabesques. Real symphonic development is excluded in favor of a naively joyous interplay of themes. All metaphysical and mystical elements which could point to a tragic relationship with events in the world around are banished…. Fierce ardor has given way to gentle warmth, the storms of springtime to autumnal mellowness. Passion has been turned into clarity, the prevailing shade being that of evening…. At the same time, Strauss gave new expression to his love for various wind instruments, whose particular tonal atmosphere he had been able to capture in a masterly manner throughout his whole career.”
Krause noted of the Oboe Concerto that it creates “an Arcadian atmosphere of shimmering transparency” and that it exhibits “a masterly command of form, and a predominance of spiritual elements over those of strong animation.” The shade of Strauss’ dearest composer, Mozart, hovers so constantly near this ingratiating composition that Michael Kennedy called it “an essay in rococo chromaticism.” The Concerto’s three movements are played without pause, as though Strauss was loath to halt the flow of sweet lyricism that constantly unwinds from the oboe’s opening phrases. The first movement follows the traditional sonata-allegro pattern, though here the form’s structural junctures are smoothly elided rather than sharply demarcated. The Andante is a three-part song: a wistful aria for oboe surrounds a more animated middle section, incorporating the main theme of the previous movement. A mellow cadenza for the soloist leads without pause to the Finale, an animated rondo-like chapter with several subsidiary episodes, some of which recall motives from the opening movement. This lovely Concerto is brought to an end by gossamer fillips and charming filigree.
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543 (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
The city of Prague fell in love with Mozart in January 1787. His Figaro met with a resounding success when he conducted it there on January 17th, and so great was the acclaim that was awarded his Symphony in D major (K. 504) when it was heard only two days later that it has since borne the name of the Bohemian capital. He returned to Vienna in early February with a signed contract to provide Prague with a new opera for its next season. The opera was Don Giovanni, and Mozart returned to Prague on October 1st to oversee its production. Again, he triumphed. He was invited to take up residence in Prague, and he must have been tempted to abandon Vienna, where his career seemed stymied and the bill-collectors harassed him incessantly, but, after six weeks away, he returned to the Imperial city for at least two pressing reasons. Personally, his wife, Constanze, was due to deliver their fourth child in December, and she wished to be close to her family for the birth. (A girl, Theresa, was born on December 27th.) Professionally, the venerable Christoph Willibald Gluck was reported near death, and Mozart, who had been lobbying to obtain a position at the Habsburg court such as Gluck held, wanted to be at hand when the job, as seemed imminent, came open.
Mozart arrived back in Vienna on November 15th, one day after Gluck died. Three weeks later, he was named Court Chamber Music Composer by Emperor Joseph II, though he was disappointed with both the salary and the duties. He was to receive only 800 florins a year, less than half the 2,000 florins that Gluck had earned, and rather than requiring him to compose operas, a form in which he had proven his eminence and to which he longed to fully devote himself, the contract specified he would write only dances for the Imperial balls. Still, the income from the court position, the generous amount he had been paid for Don Giovanni and his fees for various free-lance jobs should have been enough to adequately support his family. However, his desire to put up a good front in public with elegant clothes, expensive entertaining and even loans to needy (or conniving) musicians, largely to prove to the world that he could handle his affairs after the death of his father the preceding year, drained his resources.
He pinned his hopes for the amelioration of his financial debacle on the introduction of Don Giovanni to Vienna. This production took place on May 7, 1788, but the piece was received coolly. “The opera is divine, finer perhaps than Figaro,” allowed the Emperor, “but it is not the meat for my Viennese.” Within a month began the pathetic series of dunning letters to his well-to-do fellow Mason Michael Puchberg requesting loans. To his credit, Puchberg responded faithfully, though he was certainly a shrewd enough businessman to realize that repayment was unlikely. Only two weeks after the first letter, Mozart was back asking for more money to settle his overdue rent. “My landlord was so pressing that I was obliged to pay him on the spot (in order to avoid any unpleasantness), which caused me great embarrassment,” he confided to his benefactor. On June 17th, his bill settled, he moved out of his apartment in Vienna to cheaper lodgings in the suburb of Währing. “I have worked more during the ten days that I have lived here than in the two months in my former apartment,” he explained to Puchberg on June 27th. “If dismal thoughts did not so often intrude (which I strive forcibly to dismiss), I should be very well off here, for I live agreeably, comfortably and, above all, cheaply.”
Despite the disappointments inflicted upon him by the fickle tastes of the Viennese, his precarious pecuniary position, and an alarming decline in his health and that of his wife, Mozart was still working miracles in his music. On June 26th, just a week after he had settled in Währing, he finished the E-flat Symphony (K. 543), the first of the incomparable trilogy that he produced within two months during that unsettling summer of 1788. It is unknown how long he had been working on, or even considering, these pieces, since not a single sketch for them is known to exist. The reason that he wrote the E-flat, G minor and C major (“Jupiter”) Symphonies has never come to light. If they were composed on some flight of pure inspiration, with no upcoming performance or publication in prospect, they would be unique in that respect in his entire output. At a time when he was desperate for money, it seems unlikely that he would have spent precious hours on one, much less three, jeux d’esprit. The only mention he made of them was in the catalog of his works, where he noted the completion date of each one. They are referred to nowhere in his correspondence, which had declined sharply in volume after the death of his father a year earlier. One explanation is that they might have been written for a series of concerts he planned originally for June and July, but which was several times postponed for lack of subscribers and eventually cancelled completely. (For the rest of his life, he was unable to muster enough support among the Viennese to present a concert of his own in that city.) A second possibility is that the three symphonies were written on speculation to be published as a set. Haydn had enjoyed excellent success with such a venture in Paris only two years before, and Mozart may have been encouraged to try his luck in a similar venture. A third consideration might have been the trip Mozart was trying to arrange at that time to London, a town where a composer could make more money than on the Continent. Should the tour materialize, he reasoned, these symphonies would make a fine introduction to the British public. None of these three situations came about, however, and the genesis of Mozart’s last three symphonies will probably always remain a mystery.
In refutation of the long-held theory that Mozart never heard his Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41, it now seems likely that he used them for several occasions. In 1789 he undertook a German tour hoping to secure patronage or, perhaps, a permanent post. The program listings for the concerts in Dresden on April 14th and in Leipzig on May 12th mention a “grand new symphony” by Mozart, but do not give specifics. Somewhat more than a year later, on October 15, 1790, he was in Frankfurt to give a concert as part of the festivities surrounding the coronation of Leopold II. He hoped (vainly) to reap some benefit from the assembled nobles by presenting “a grand symphony” and a piano concerto (No. 26 in D, K. 537, “Coronation”). On April 16 and 17, 1791, the Vienna Tonkünstler Society, a charitable organization of professional musicians, played “a new great symphony by Herr Mozart.” For each of these occasions, Mozart would have offered his most impressive, most recent works in the form, and would almost certainly have chosen one or more of the 1788 symphonies. The first documented performance took place in Hamburg in March 1792. “Some admitted they would never have been able to think or imagine they would hear something like this performed so splendidly in Hamburg,” wrote one eyewitness.
“A veritable triumph of euphony” (Otto Jahn); “the most limpid and lyrical music in existence” (Eric Blom); “the most purely joyous utterance in musical literature” (Donald N. Ferguson) — thus have these learned commentators characterized Mozart’s sumptuous E-flat Symphony. The work opens with a large introduction bearing a surprising emotional weight. The remainder of the movement, however, uses its sonata-allegro form as the basis of a lovely extended song rather than as an intense drama. The halcyon mood carries into the second movement, a sonatina in form (sonata-allegro without development section) and a sunbeam in spirit. The Minuet, with its sweet Trio led by the woodwinds, is a vivacious dance of grace, elegance and, at the swift Allegretto tempo indicated, a certain prescient Romantic vigor. The finale combines Haydn’s wit and verve with Mozart’s suavity of style and harmonic felicity.
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Overture from the Incidental Music to Much Ado About Nothing, Op. 11 (1918)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Gustav Mahler called him “a genius”; Karl Goldmark proclaimed his music to be “a miracle”; Giacomo Puccini said, “That boy’s talent is so great, he could easily give us half and still have enough left for himself”; and Richard Strauss observed, “One’s first reaction, that these compositions are by an adolescent boy, is one of awe and fear: this firmness of style, this sovereignty of form, this individuality of expression, this harmonic structure — it is truly amazing.” The object of this cascade of encomiums was a teenage boy whose prodigality invited comparison with such pre-pubescent Wunderkinder as Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert: Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (his middle name honored Mozart), born on May 29, 1897 in Brünn, Austria (now Brno, Czech Republic), was the younger son of Julius Korngold, a protégé of Eduard Hanslick and one of Vienna’s most influential music critics at the turn of the century. By age five, Erich was playing piano duets with his father; two years later he began composing; at nine, he produced a cantata (Gold) that convinced his father to enroll him as a student of Robert Fuchs at the Vienna Conservatory. When Mahler heard Erich play his cantata the following year, he proclaimed the boy “a genius” and arranged for him to take lessons with Alexander Zemlinsky. Korngold made remarkable progress under Zemlinsky — his Piano Sonata No. 1 was published in 1908, when he had ripened to the age of eleven. The following year he wrote a ballet, Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), orchestrated by Zemlinsky, which was staged at the Vienna Royal Opera at the command of Emperor Franz Josef. Next came a piano trio and another piano sonata, both of which Artur Schnabel played all over Europe. For the Gewandhaus concerts, Artur Nikisch commissioned Korngold’s first orchestral work, the Schauspiel Ouvertüre (“Overture to a Play”), and premiered it in Leipzig in 1911. Later that same year the budding composer gave a concert of his works in Berlin, in which he also appeared as piano soloist. Korngold was an international celebrity at thirteen. “It seems that nature amassed all its gifts in music and laid them in the cradle of this extraordinary child,” marveled Felix Weingartner.
In 1915 and 1916, Korngold wrote the first two of his five operas: Der Ring des Polykrates, a comedy, and Violanta, a tragedy. Bruno Walter premiered this complementary pair of one-acters in tandem at the Vienna Opera on March 28, 1916. Following a two-year stint in the Austrian army playing piano for the troops during World War I, Korngold composed some incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Burgtheater in Vienna, and then turned again to opera, producing his dramatic masterpiece, Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), which was premiered simultaneously in Hamburg (where he served as conductor for three years after the War) and Cologne on December 4, 1920. The work appeared on the stages of 83 opera houses around the world during the following months; it was the first German opera performed at the Met after World War I (November 19, 1921, with Maria Jeritza in her American debut). After Korngold returned to Vienna in 1920, he was appointed professor of opera and composition at the Staatsakademie and served as music consultant for revivals of several of Johann Strauss’ operettas, including one pastiche that reached Broadway in 1934 as The Great Waltz. A poll by the Neue Wiener Tagblatt (“New Vienna Daily”) in 1928 showed that that newspaper’s readers thought Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg were the two greatest living Austrian composers.
In 1934, the Austrian director Max Reinhardt was conscripted by the Warner Brothers Studio in Hollywood to film a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, James Cagney, Joe E. Brown and Mickey Rooney. Reinhardt chose to use Mendelssohn’s incidental music as background, and he took Korngold along to arrange the score. Korngold, who, as a Jew, felt increasingly uneasy in Austria, accepted other offers in Hollywood, and, when the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 prevented him from returning home, he settled permanently in California. (He became a United States citizen in 1943.) For the next seven years, he devoted his talents to creating a body of film music unsurpassed by that of any other composer in the genre, and won two Academy Awards (for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood). His father’s death in 1945, however, caused him to re-evaluate his career, and he returned to writing concert music with concertos for violin (for Heifetz) and cello, and a large symphony that Dmitri Mitropoulos called “one of the most significant works of the century.” These new pieces caused little stir among critics and public, however, who by and large felt that such music was merely a warmed-over manifestation of an earlier age. (Romanticism was a badly battered notion during those dodecaphony-dominated post-World War II years.) Korngold went to Vienna for an extended visit, but returned to Hollywood, where he suffered a series of heart attacks. He died on November 29, 1957, and his remains were interred in the Hollywood Cemetery, within a few feet of those of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., D.W. Griffith and Rudolf Valentino.
Korngold’s achievement, for both the screen and the concert hall, was sadly undervalued at the time of his death. A reassessment began in 1972, when the composer’s son George produced a recording by Charles Gerhardt and a top-flight London studio orchestra of selections from his father’s film music (The Sea Hawk). The album became a best-seller for RCA, and a sequel (Elizabeth and Essex) appeared the following year. New recordings of the Symphony in F-sharp (by Rudolf Kempe), the Violin Concerto (Ulf Hoelscher) and Die Tote Stadt (Erich Leinsdorf) in the mid-1970s fueled interest in Korngold’s concert and operatic music, just as the great Warner Brothers films of the 1930s and 1940s were starting their transformation from kitsch to classics. Brendan Carroll and Konrad Hopkins founded a Korngold Society in England in 1983, the same year Götz Friedrich revived Die Tote Stadt at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. All of Korngold’s significant compositions have since become available in fine commercial recordings, his works are now given regularly in performance by leading artists, and two biographies of him have recently been published to mark the centenary of his birth: Erich Wolfgang Korngold by Jessica Duchen (Phaidon Press, 1996) and The Last Prodigy by Brendan G. Carroll (Amadeus Press, 1997).
In June 1959, a memorial concert of Korngold’s music was given in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA. Jessica Duchen closed her study of the composer with the following excerpt from a review of that event which appeared in the Los Angeles Examiner: “A memorial concert to Erich Wolfgang Korngold … brought to our attention a musical voice which may be regarded, when the smog of controversy rolls away, as one of the most civilized and gracious of the 20th century. Thirty years ago Korngold’s idiom seemed advanced. Then came the schools of atonalism, polytonality and general chaos, and Korngold was suddenly placed in the category of the reactionaries. Among those who discarded him, there are few survivors. Korngold spoke forth last night with a richness of melody and a luxuriance of harmony that marked him for survival. There is no defeatism in Korngold’s music. He loved life, he accepted life, and he gave back in music the wonder that he found in it.”
Korngold wrote fourteen pieces of incidental music for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1918 for a production at Vienna’s Burgtheater the following year; the 22-year-old composer conducted the premiere. Korngold’s music proved popular with audiences, and he was encouraged to extract from the score both a concert suite and an arrangement for violin and piano. In this latter form, the Much Ado About Nothing music became one of his most popular works, and found champions in such distinguished sovereigns of fiddledom as Kreisler, Heifetz and Elman. The rollicking Overture previews the merriment and high spirits of the comedy to follow. Maiden in the Bridal Chamber is a romantic episode for use in Act III, Scene 4. Dogberry and Verges is a grotesquely officious march portraying the two comical officers of the watch. The Garden Scene (Act III) accompanies Beatrice’s realization of her growing love for Benedick. The suite closes with a rousing Hornpipe that sounds in response to Benedick’s words which conclude the play: “Strike up, pipers!”
Gloria for Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra (1959)
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Poulenc was raised in a home that valued religion deeply. His father was committed to his Catholicism, but, the composer added, “in a very liberal way, without the slightest meanness.” When Francis left home for military service in 1918 and later jumped into the heady life of artistic Paris, however, his interest in religion declined. “From 1920 to 1935, I was very little concerned with the faith,” he admitted. In 1936, though, he underwent a rejuvenation of his religious belief when his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in an automobile accident. Deeply shaken, he wrote, “The atrocious extinction of this musician so full of vigor left me stupefied. Pondering on the fragility of our human frame, the life of the spirit attracted me anew.” He rejoined the Church and thereafter expressed his faith frequently and unashamedly. “I am religious by deepest instinct and heredity,” he said. “I feel myself incapable of ardent political conviction, but for me it seems quite natural to believe and practice religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom.” During the last three decades of his life, a series of wonderful musical works on religious themes, including the Mass, the Stabat Mater, the Gloria and The Dialogues of the Carmelites, sprang from his ardently renewed vision.
Poulenc’s faith, like the music it engendered, was simple, direct, optimistic and joyous. He once told friends, “I have the faith of a country pastor,” and he always preferred quiet meditation or prayer in a rural church to the structured services of the urban cathedral. It was through his music that he shared his devotion. “I want the religious spirit to be expressed clearly, out in the open, with the same realism that we see in Romanesque columns,” he said. “I try to create a feeling of fervor and, especially, of humility, for me the most beautiful quality of prayer…. My conception of religious music is essentially direct, and, I dare say, intimate.” When an interviewer once commented on the high quality of his choral and sacred works, he replied, “I think I’ve put the best and most genuine part of me into them…. If people are still interested in my music fifty years from now it’ll be more in the Stabat Mater than in the Mouvements perpétuels.”
During his last years, Poulenc became increasingly fatalistic and, consequently, turned more to the Church. Throughout his life, he was subject to attacks of acute depression, and the one he suffered while working on The Dialogues of the Carmelites during the mid-1950s resulted in a nervous breakdown. He largely recovered, but he thereafter viewed his existence as fragile. “What shall I write next? Undoubtedly nothing else,” he lamented to his biographer Henri Hell in 1961. A year later, however, he wrote to the singer Pierre Bernac, “I now feel completely, happily free, and I can await Providence.” The Gloria of 1959 naturally reflects some of Poulenc’s deeper thoughts, but it also shows the buoyant, confident feelings inherent in his faith and his music. It is a wholly appropriate piece for a man who was once described as “half monk, half bounder.”
In the Gloria, written on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, Poulenc said that he “tried to write a joyous hymn to the glory of God.” His text, taken from the second section of the Mass Ordinary, is the set of traditional songs dating from the fifth century sung by the angels on the night of the Nativity in praise of the Christ child. Before beginning composition, Poulenc immersed himself in the ancient words, reciting them over and over to himself, listening, noting breathing places, marking stresses, looking for inner rhythms of the syllables and deeper meanings of the ideas. The Gloria, like all great vocal music, grew from the sense and sounds of its text — the words, after all, were there before the music. Poulenc reinterpreted those venerable words and heightened their message by wrapping them in music that again demonstrated his remarkable lyrical gift, which has often been compared to that of Schubert, a composer he greatly admired. Wrote Roger Nichols, “For Poulenc the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted.”
The Gloria opens with a brilliant fanfare for full orchestra as preparation for the entry of the voices. The sentiment of the movement is one of joy tinged with a soupçon of nostalgia, one of Poulenc’s most characteristic moods. Of the lighthearted Laudamus te, Poulenc recalled, “The second movement caused a scandal; I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day.” This robust movement also serves to set in relief the following Domine Deus, music of profound awe and intense emotion. The bright wit and chuckling insouciance of the Laudamus te return in the fourth movement, Domine fili unigenite, which, like the earlier movement, is followed by music of a serious and moving nature — the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei. The final movement, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, is divided into three sections, each based on the same text. The movement opens with jubilant choral shouts echoed by chords spread across the full orchestra. The celebratory mood continues into the next section, a vibrant rhythmic essay punctuated by the fanfare figure that opened the first movement. Poulenc closes his masterful Gloria with the final treatment of the Qui sedes text, this last one suffused with prayerful devotion and peaceful benediction.
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano and Eight Cellos (1938, 1945)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer, had little formal training. He learned the cello from his father and earned a living as a young man playing with popular bands, from which he derived much of his musical background. From his earliest years, Villa-Lobos was enthralled with the indigenous songs and dances of his native land, and he made several trips into the Brazilian interior to study the native music and ceremonies. Beginning with his earliest works, around 1910, his music shows the influence of the melodies, rhythms and sonorities that he discovered. He began to compose prolifically, and, though often ridiculed for his daring new style by other Brazilian musicians, he attracted the attention of the pianist Artur Rubinstein, who helped him receive a Brazilian government grant in 1923 that enabled him to spend several years in Paris, where his international reputation was established. Upon his permanent return to Rio de Janeiro in 1930, Villa-Lobos became an important figure in public musical education, urging the cultivation of Brazilian songs and dances in the schools. He made his first visit to the United States in 1944, and spent the remaining years of his life traveling in America and Europe to conduct and promote his own works and those of other Brazilian composers. Villa-Lobos summarized his creative philosophy in an interview with New York Times critic Olin Downes by saying that he did not think of music as “culture, or education, or even as a device for quieting the nerves, but as something more potent, mystical and profound in its effect. Music has the power to communicate, to heal, to ennoble, when it is made part of man’s life and consciousness.”
The set of nine Bachianas Brasileiras holds a special place in Villa-Lobos’ enormous output of more than 2000 works. These compositions, which Arthur Cohn called “less a musical form than a type of creative principle,” combine the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of Brazilian music with the texture and style of Bach. Of this genre, original with him, Villa-Lobos wrote, “This is a special kind of musical composition, based on an intimate knowledge of the great works of Bach and also on the composer’s affinity with the harmonic, contrapuntal and melodic atmosphere of the folklore of Brazil. The composer considers Bach a universal and rich folklore source, deeply rooted in the folk music of every country in the world. Thus Bach is a mediator among all races.” The Bachianas Brasileiras were written for various ensembles: three for orchestra, one for an ensemble of eight cellos, one (No. 5, perhaps the most frequently heard of the set) for cellos and soprano, one for solo piano, one for piano and orchestra, one for flute and bassoon, and one for string orchestra or unaccompanied chorus. These works date from 1930 to 1945, during the years after Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil from Paris, where he was deeply influenced by the music of Milhaud and the neo-classicism of Stravinsky. The resultant blend of French clarity, Bachian counterpoint and Brazilian ethos made for an art distinctly and recognizably that of Villa-Lobos. Of this music, Irving Schwerké wrote, “He is a creator of ambiances, of spiritual vistas. Intellectually and emotionally he is alive to the world. In his nature, the qualities of savage races and of exquisitely civilized people meet, and this union is the determining course of a rare sensibility.”
The Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is scored for the unusual combination of soprano voice and eight cellos. The opening movement, Aria (Cantilena), was composed in 1938 and premiered on March 25, 1939 in Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos noted that the Brazilian usage of the word “aria” is as a general designation for “a kind of lyrical song” — his model in the outer sections of the piece, sung without words, may well have been the famous Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite. The middle portion of the Aria, in the style of a Brazilian folksong, is a setting of a poem by Ruth V. Corrêa evoking the beauties of sunset and evening. According to the composer, the second movement, Dansa (subtitled Martelo, “Hammered”), from 1945, “represents a persistent and characteristic rhythm much like the strange melodies of the Brazilian hinterland known as emboladas. The melody suggests the birds of Brazil.” Its text, a verse by Manuel Bandeira, expresses the ancient theme of the wild bird as the messenger of love.
Symphony No. 7, Op. 131 (1952)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Prokofiev’s feverish activity during the years after the Second World War belie the alarming state of his health. He suffered the first of a series of heart attacks in 1941, and a fall early in 1945 resulted in a severe concussion with several painful and continuing complications. Despite his nearly debilitated condition, in 1946 and 1947 alone, he was able to compose the Sixth Symphony, arrange three extensive suites of the music from Cinderella, revise the Fourth Symphony, write a cantata for the 30th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and a separate orchestral piece on the same subject, produce a sonata for unaccompanied violins, and devise suites of symphonic excerpts from several of his stage works. He was only able to complete these projects because he persevered with the punctual and concentrated work habits of his earlier years, though at a less intense level. His friend, the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, wrote, “His whole existence, all his energies, his entire mode of life were directed to the one aim, of saving for his work all the strength he had left. At times it seemed as if he knew his malady would defeat him in the end and he was deliberately hurrying to get all his ideas down on paper before it was too late.” During his frequent hospital stays, for example, he was forbidden to work at all. One friend reported, however, that Prokofiev stationed him at his hospital door during a visit so that he could warn the composer of any approaching nurses. While the coast was clear, Prokofiev scribbled a few notes on the pad he kept hidden beneath his pillow.
Late in 1951, Prokofiev projected a whole series of works — sonatas for piano and for cello, a sixth piano concerto, extensive revisions of earlier scores — that he intended to complete in the near future. Among these plans, he told the press, was one for a “simple symphony,” intended for young listeners, perhaps to be broadcast by the Children’s Division of the national radio. He set to work on the symphony immediately; the short score was finished by March 20, 1952, and the orchestration was done by July 5th. (It was to be the only one of these late projected works that he completed.) The new Symphony, however, his seventh in the genre, had grown beyond his original conception to a full concert hall specimen, though it retained a pronounced simplicity of form, texture and thematic substance. The piece stirred considerable interest even before it was publicly premiered on October 11, 1952 in Moscow: the pianist Anatoly Vedernikov made a four-hand arrangement of the score, which was enthusiastically received at a private concert given for the Composer’s Union; Kabalevsky extolled the Symphony in the press; Shostakovich called it “joyful, lyrical and delightful.” When the piece was finally heard, the critics and public joined in the praise, making the premiere a virtual farewell to the ailing composer. It was the last time he attended a public performance of his own music; he died of a stroke just five months later. The Symphony was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize in 1957.
The Seventh Symphony, along with such other works as Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, Alexander Nevsky and the Second Violin Concerto that Prokofiev wrote after returning to Russia from the West in 1933, is richly lyrical and immediately ingratiating, the style deemed appropriate by the government to inspire the Soviet masses. “It is the duty of the composer, like the poet, the sculptor or the painter, to serve his fellow men, to beautify human life and show the way to a radiant future,” he wrote in his 1946 Autobiography. The technical means toward this goal was, to him, obvious: “To achieve a more simple and melodic expression is the inevitable direction for the musical art of the future.” This Symphony, his last important completed score, not only made those words manifest, but also showed that Prokofiev was able to create music of surpassing quality under the tightest ideological strictures.
Rather than being dramatic or heroic, the Symphony’s opening movement is quiet, lyrical and somewhat nostalgic in expression, a formal technique Prokofiev may have borrowed from Shostakovich. The movement contains three themes: a sad, simple melody initiated by the violins; a sweeping phrase of balletic mien; and a slight, sardonic motive in metronomic rhythm. The compact development section treats each of the three themes before they are fully recapitulated to round out the movement. The second movement is a waltz in the Russian tradition of such pieces by Tchaikovsky, Glinka and Glazunov. There follows an Andante, effusively melodious and one of the most unabashedly sentimental pieces that Prokofiev ever created. The finale is fast, excited and joyous, but pauses to recall the first movement’s second and third themes in its closing pages.
“The Seventh Symphony is one of those works which are difficult to describe in words,” wrote Israel Nestyev in his biography of Prokofiev. “It is so classically simple, so transparent, so finely worked out and so artistically perfect that the workmanship as such is imperceptible.”
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Arnold Bax, born on November 8, 1883 into a wealthy family in London that early recognized his musical gifts, was enrolled at the Hampstead Conservatory, then directed by the pioneering folklorist Cecil Sharp, at the age of fifteen, and two years later entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he gained a notable reputation for his ability to read even the most complex scores at sight on the piano. (Bax, independently wealthy, never played or conducted in public.) Late in life he admitted that he had always been “a brazen Romantic,” so it was inevitable that the music of Wagner, Strauss and Elgar made a strong impression upon him during his student years. The most profound effect on Bax at the time, however, was that exercised by the writings of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Bax said that Yeats’ The Wanderings of Usheen, which he discovered when he was nineteen, “opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth, and pointed to the magic mountain whence I was to dig all that may be of value in my own art.” Bax once allowed that Yeats’ poetry meant more to him that all the music of the ages. The composer visited Ireland frequently, and even assumed the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne, under which name he published three books of Irish tales that demonstrated a considerable literary talent. Several of his early orchestral works also show a strong Irish–Celtic influence: A Connemara Reel, Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan, An Irish Overture and the set of three tone poems called Eire.
In 1909, Bax fell in love with a Russian girl and followed her back to her homeland, but in vain. After a few months abroad, he returned to England and married Elsita Luisa Sobrino, the daughter of a Spanish pianist. The failure of the marriage a few years later, the tragedy of World War I, and the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, for which some of his closest Irish friends were executed, shattered what Bax called the “ivory tower of my youth.” Those difficulties, however, seem to have ignited rather than broken his creative genius, and many of his best works date from the following years: the symphonic poems The Garden of Fand, November Woods and Tintagel were completed between 1916 and 1919; the first of his seven symphonies was finished in 1922. Bax composed steadily in all genres except opera for the next two decades, receiving the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal in 1931 and honorary doctorates from Oxford and Durham Universities in 1934 and 1935. He was knighted by George VI in 1937, and four years later, on the death of Walford Davies, he was appointed Master of the King’s Musick. Bax largely abandoned composition after the outbreak of the Second World War (he told those who asked that he supposed he had as much right to retire as any grocer), thereafter writing only two chamber works, a few short orchestral pieces, some choral music, and scores for four films, including David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist. Bax’s last orchestral work was the 1952 Coronation March for Elizabeth II. He spent most of his later years in the village of Storrington in Sussex, but died fittingly, just a month before his seventieth birthday, while vacationing in Ireland.
Bax, an unrepentant Romantic, characterized his music as “the expression of emotional states: I have no interest whatever in sound for its own sake or in any modern ’isms or factions.” His is a style rich in harmony, melody and texture, epic in scope and polished in craftsmanship. The evocative lure of ancient Celtic legend as a musical inspiration remained strong for him throughout his life, though he turned toward a more abstract compositional idiom in his later years. Edwin Evans summarized Bax’s work as “the musical equivalent of the lyrical impulse in poetry, the attribute which causes utterance to take spontaneously beautiful forms, irrespective of all else.”
Tintagel is the spectacular site on the northern coast of Cornwall, England’s south-westernmost county, forever associated with King Arthur, his wizard, Merlin, and the misty early history of Great Britain. It has always been a place of mystery and wonder, with the ruined piles of an ancient castle set high above the pounding waves of the north Atlantic. The place worked a special magic on Bax, immersed as he was in Celtic history and legend, and the symphonic poem that it inspired from him in 1917 is one of his finest and best-known compositions. As preface to the published score of Tintagel, Bax provided the following précis of the music:
“The work is intended to evoke a tone picture of the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel and more particularly the wide distances of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer day. In the middle section of the piece, it may be imagined that with the increasing tumult of the sea arise memories of the historical and legendary associations of the place, especially those connected with King Arthur, King Marke, and Tristram and Iseult. Regarding the last named it will be noticed that at the climax of the central division of the work there is a brief reference to one of the subjects in the first act of Wagner’s Tristan.”
Violin Concerto No. 2 (World Premiere Consortium)
Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973)
Jonathan Leshnoff is winning an international reputation as one of America’s most gifted composers. His works have been programmed and commissioned by the Baltimore, Curtis Institute, Buffalo, Kansas City, Columbus (Ohio), Oakland, Duluth, IRIS, Kyoto, Extremadura (Spain), National Repertory, National Symphony of Mexico, Baltimore Chamber and Boca Raton orchestras, Da Capo Chamber Ensemble, Smithsonian’s Twentieth Century Consort, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band and other noted ensembles and soloists; he is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Fairfax Symphony. Several recordings devoted to Leshnoff’s music are included in Naxos’ “American Classics” series: one contains the Symphony No. 1 (“Forgotten Chants and Refrains”) and Rush, both premiered by Michael Stern and the IRIS Orchestra of Germantown, Tennessee; the second release features the Violin Concerto, performed by violinist Charles Wetherbee and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar; the third disc contains Leshnoff’s chamber music in performances by IRIS musicians; the Atlanta Symphony’s recording of the Symphony No. 2 and the oratorio Zohar was released in November 2016; and in December 2017, the band arrangement of his Clarinet Concerto was issued with Philadelphia Orchestra principal Ricardo Morales and the United States Marine Band. The next scheduled release includes the Symphony No. 4 and Guitar Concerto with soloist Jason Vieaux and the Nashville Symphony. Leshnoff’s honors include two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, Honorable Mention in the Rudolph Nissim Prize and an Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.
Jonathan Leshnoff was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1973, and simultaneously earned undergraduate degrees in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University and in music composition from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; he completed his doctoral work at the University of Maryland. Since 2001, he has been on the faculty of Towson University in Maryland, where he is now Professor of Music.
The following information was provided by Leshnoff Publishing:
The violin is a familiar instrument to Jonathan Leshnoff. It was the instrument he played as a child and into his teens before he “officially” switched to composition in his college years. He has written two other major works for violin that have been widely performed: his Violin Concerto No. 1 for full orchestra, which was written for Charles Wetherbee and recorded on a top-ranked Naxos CD, and his Chamber Concerto for Violin, which was written for Gil Shaham. Leshnoff also has written a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola.
The genesis of Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto No. 2 came from the 2015 Harrisburg Symphony performance of his Double Concerto. Leshnoff arrived at the first rehearsal of the work not knowing the violin soloist of that performance, Alexander Kerr. He left the concert with a budding friendship with Alex and great admiration for Kerr’s performance and technique. Seeing great potential in their artistic collaboration, Kerr commissioned a trio from Leshnoff featuring former Dallas Symphony Principal Horn David Cooper, himself and piano. The success of that Trio led to the co-commission of the Violin Concerto No. 2 by the DSO and the Harrisburg Symphony.
The Concerto is cast in four movements with a melody that appears in all of them. The first movement (Fast) begins amid quiet rustling from the upper strings as the soloist presents the soaring melody, commencing kinetic explorations throughout the movement. The second movement (Yud: Chochma) is scored only for strings, harp and solo violin. Slow and introverted, the themes seem to emerge from nothing and return to that source. The third movement (Scherzo) is brief, utilizing a jaunty theme that is virtuosically passed between soloist and orchestra. In contrast, the lengthy fourth movement (Fast) appears as an independent entity, until, at the end, the opening melody is triumphantly brought back. With this melodic unification, the work creates a sense of cohesion and finality, ultimately bringing the Concerto to a bright close.
Jewish mysticism has profoundly influenced Leshnoff’s music, and he is in the midst of a ten-work, multi-year project that parallels the fundamental building blocks of Jewish spiritual thought. The authentic Jewish mystical schools outline in great length and detail the spiritual architecture of the universe and its relationship with God and mankind. It is within those systems that Leshnoff draws his inspiration. The second movement of this Concerto will take its place as one of those works. “Chochma,” in mystical thought, is the unknown, mysterious genesis of any creative idea. Like an embryo, it contains the entire structure in one small “point.” This is represented in the second movement of this work, where the lyrical, plaintive melody grows out of the most minimal background and orchestral materials.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World” (1892-1893)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
When Antonín Dvořák, aged 51, arrived in New York on September 27, 1892 to direct the new National Conservatory of Music, both he and the institution’s founder, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, expected that he would help to foster an American school of composition. He was clear and specific in his assessment: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. They can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot find a thematic source here.” Dvořák’s knowledge of this music came from Henry Thacker Burleigh, an African-American song writer and student of his who sang the traditional melodies to the enthralled composer. Burleigh later recalled, “There is no doubt that Dr. Dvořák was very deeply impressed by the Negro spirituals from the old plantation. He just saturated himself in the spirit of those old tunes, and then invented his own themes.”
The “New World” Symphony was not only Dvořák’s way of pointing toward a truly American musical idiom but also a reflection of his feelings about his own country. “I should never have written the Symphony as I have,” he said, “if I hadn’t seen America,” but he added in a later letter that it was “genuine Bohemian music.” There is actually a reconciliation between these two seemingly contradictory statements, since the characteristics that Dvořák found in Burleigh’s indigenous American music — pentatonic (five-note) scales, modal minor keys with a lowered seventh degree, rhythmic syncopations, frequent returns to the central key note — are common to much folk music throughout the world, including that of his native Bohemia. Because his themes for the “New World” Symphony drew upon these cross-cultural qualities, to Americans, they sound American; to Czechs, they sound Czech.
The “New World” Symphony is unified by the use of a motto theme that occurs in all four movements. This bold, striding phrase, with its arching contour, is played by the horns as the main theme of the sonata-form opening movement, having been foreshadowed (also by the horns) in the slow introduction. Two other themes are used in the first movement: a sad, dance-like melody for flute and oboe that exhibits folk characteristics, and a brighter tune, with a striking resemblance to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, for the solo flute.
Many years before coming to America, Dvořák had encountered Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which he read in a Czech translation. The great tale remained in his mind, and he considered making an opera of it during his time in New York. That project came to nothing, but Hiawatha did have an influence on the “New World” Symphony: the second movement was inspired by the forest funeral of Minnehaha; the third, by the dance of the Indians at the feast. That the music of these movements has more in common with the old plantation songs than with the chants of native Americans is due to Dvořák’s mistaken belief that African-American and Indian music were virtually identical.
The second movement is a three-part form (A–B–A), with a haunting English horn melody (later fitted with words by William Arms Fisher to become the folksong-spiritual Goin’ Home) heard in the first and last sections. The recurring motto here is pronounced by the trombones just before the return of the main theme in the closing section. The third movement is a tempestuous scherzo with two gentle, intervening trios providing contrast. The motto theme, played by the horns, dominates the coda.
The finale employs a sturdy motive introduced by the horns and trumpets after a few introductory measures in the strings. In the Symphony’s closing pages, the motto theme, Goin’ Home and the scherzo melody are all gathered up and combined with the principal subject of the finale to produce a marvelous synthesis of the entire work — a look back across the sweeping vista of Dvořák’s musical tribute to America.
©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda